Archive for February, 2008

The Gavin Bryars Ensemble: A Man in a Room, Gambling (Tate Modern)

February 28, 2008

Tonight J and I were lucky enough to get to the Tate Modern to see Gavin Bryars and his ensemble perform “A Man in a Room, Gambling,” a piece based on a spoken word performance by Juan Muñoz.

The concept was pretty cool: as I read it, it was spoken word about a person’s thoughts during the course of a night of gambling, or, as described in the program, “strategies employed in card games.” In fact, it turns out the spoken bit is about how to cheat at cards, starting with three card monte, then dealing from the bottom of the deck, how to “fake” cutting the cards, and how to hide a card you’ve palmed after the hand is over. Hah! According to Mr. Bryars, Muñoz’s thought was that the various pieces were supposed to be little one off radio slots, rather like “The Shipping News” (for Americans, imagine that poet of the day thing Garrison Keilor does), that stood by themselves but had an air of strangeness to them, meant to be heard as you were going from one thing to the next. In between, there was a piece called “The North Shore,” a piece Bryars made in honor of his friend Muñoz, whom he described as “a great artist and a good bloke.” It was built off of one of the pieces from the Gambling series, though I couldn’t tell which one.

My review of the show was … well, Bryar’s music can be very difficult for me to put temporal order to. One minute you’re doing one thing, one the next, and while I might hear little themes that I sort of briefly recognize, or hear stylings that I enjoy, I find it difficult to string it together in my head. This is where listening to a CD can really help, because you can build it up over and over until it makes a structure that you can comprehend. Live music is so very here and now, a series of seconds taking place one after the other, that it can be hard for me to feel like I’m moving rather than just having sound images flashing at me, one after the next. Baroque music isn’t like this. That said, the narrative provided by the voice, which called up very striking visuals and was even sequential and goal oriented, was a good companion to the music. And I liked the music, but modern stuff just isn’t as easy as earlier stuff.

Conclusion: well, I guess I need to go see who this Muñoz guy is and why Bryars thought he was worth collaborating with in the first place. The exhibit at the Tate goes on through the end of April, so there’s plenty of time. And if YOU’RE interested, if you click on the link, you can listen to Juan giving away the trick to dealing from the bottom of the deck. My guess is that J will be practicing them now that he’s heard all of the secrets. Finally: three card monte: you can never win. Juan said so.

Show order: From A Man in a Room Gambling (1992); Number 2 (Three card trick), Number 4 (Shifting upper pakc to bottom), Nmber 3 (cutting), Number 8 (Getting rid of extra cards). The North Shore (1994). Then Number 16 (Taking cards from teh bottom), Number 9 (Three card trick, Mexican Row) and Number 10 (Dealing from the bottom). I wanted desperately to stay afterwards and have my picture taken with the great man himself, but … well, I can just hope there is a next time!

(This review is for a concert that took place Thursday, February 28, 2008.)

Pinter’s Homecoming at the Almeida KICKED ASS

February 25, 2008

First, this isn’t going to be any kind of proper review, as I don’t want to spoil any of the fun of this show. What did I read about it? “Awesome show!” (said like a Brit). “5 stars!” So I said screw reading the review, I’m just going to buy tickets. And I’m so glad I did … and now I’m going to try to tell you why you should call the theater every day until you too can see this show.

I really didn’t know how screwed up a play could be before I saw this. It was like seeing a Coen Brothers’ movie, where everything has this air of normality, and then you suddenly go, “Hey, you can’t do that with a wood chipper!” Life just isn’t like that, but for some reason, when you’re watching people RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOU saying this crazy shit, how can you argue that it’s not true and life doesn’t work like that? Because they just said it, they just did it RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE. It wasn’t CGI and it wasn’t dubbed, it was THERE. You saw it. It was REAL. We laughed and shook our heads. Who were these crazy people we were watching?

And what’s extra cool is that every single character had a back story. Not “came from a troubled home” or “drinks on the sly” but rather so rich and believable that you could sit there and discuss what they were doing in grade school and what kind of mom and dad each of them had. It was like that. It was written that well. And every character was ACTED well. None of this, “Oh, I’m just a bit role, I have to a) be small b) be loud and try to steal the show.” Nope, each actor gave it 100% of what it needed to be perfect, right down to stroking their whiskey glasses with lustful intent. Never has a glass of water been drunk with such obvious … overtones.

I can’t believe this was written so long ago, especially when I think about what was contemporary at the time. Harold Pinter is god and I worship at his altar, where he sits next to Henryk Ibsen.

PS: For the record, getting back from Putney to Angel BITES. Otherwise it was a perfect night.

Shen Yun “Divine Performing Arts” Ensemble – Chinese Art Spectacular – Royal Festival Hall

February 23, 2008

NOTE: I completely support freedom of religion, and I support the right of Fa Lun Gung practitioners to follow their religion as they see fit. This review is NOT “anti-Fa Lun Gung,” it is simply a theatrical review of what was billed as an arts performance. I am against the suppression of Fa Lun Gung as it is against the universal rights of man to not be able to follow the religion you choose.

Well, this was not the night I was expecting. I was warned, more or less, in the opening number, in which pretty dancing ladies in traditional dress, buddhist monks, and Chinese warriors danced on stage in front of a video screen. Suddenly, a flying chariot shot down from the sky and the deity within it said, “All come together and live a thousand years!” or something like that, and the people on stage all turned and bowed to the video screen.

Oh my God, we had bought tickets to a Chinese religious “revival.” And this wasn’t some run of the mill religion: it was the heavily persecuted Fa Lun Gung cult, for two and a half hours. Holy shades of Xenu, Batman!

To be clear, there was quite a bit of traditional Chinese dance, including a charming “Tibetan bowl dance,” a number in which whirled yellow handkerchiefs (which looked like dandelions) made a field of flowers (supposedly forsythias), and two different fan dances. But these were interspersed with the most heinous vocal performances I’ve seen since … well, I am thinking of Lyric Opera Northwest’s Carmen, but we weren’t really suffering from poor vocals. What we were presented was a culturally painful pastiche of anime style hooped ballgowns, a straight Western singing style, and lyrics … all about Fa Lun Gung. Let me give you an example.

“So vast loomed this world/I knew not who I was/Oh how many lifetimes? The number was a blur.
“Lost no help in sight/Only distress and pain/How weary, how heavy was this longing heart.
“Until one day I finally came upon the truth/Until The Way (Da Fa, from Fa Lun Da Fa, the great path of Fa Lun Gung) I had sought pierced the ear like thunder.” (Okay, that’s not as obvious as the one where the woman sang, “Fa Lun Gung, it’ll make you feel better,” but this happens to be the one I had the pen out for.)

I was mortified. I had inadvertently fell into a cache of very sincere religious people singing and dancing their hearts out in support of their faith, and I had paid to be there.

To be fair, the artistry was quite good if you like Chinese dance, and the erhu (Chinese violin) performance was great, but I was crawling in my skin and rather angry with the promoters for hiding the true nature of this performance. I mean, I have no one to blame but myself for not realizing that the Bach “Saint John’s Passion” is basically a really long Bible reading, but the promotional material for this performance said it was a Chinese performing arts presentation, and indicated nowhere that it was a group of American Fa Lun Gung believers on a tour of Europe to raise consciousness about their great religion and their persecution by the Chinese government.

That said, I was quite absorbed by the two pieces about how, well, let’s be clear, the Chinese authorities beat up, imprison, and sometimes kill people who practice Fa Lun Gung. The piece set in the prison (with three women prisoner who clearly are being held because of their faith) may have been extremely corny insofar as it proposed that someone could see images of dancing Chinese fairies if they believed hard enough; but the bit about being beaten to death in jail, that was pretty real and it hit a nerve that most dance I see just pretends isn’t even there. The two women who saw their friend joining the angels in heaven (albeit a Chinese/Buddhist heaven): totally outside of my belief system, and yet the raw need to believe something positive could come out such a horrible death (and probably some rather bad lives) was palpable from my balcony seat. It even gave me some sympathy for my own torturers. And, I have to admit, the way China’s ramping up throwing dissidents in jail with the Olympics on the way, I felt rather cheery about having someone say, “Yo! China! Let’s talk about how great it isn’t!” (This was exactly the point made in the other religious dance piece, in which the mother and her daughter started out waving a Fa Lun Gung banner and were then forcibly separated by soldiers – the rather subtle message being that the world should not be a bystander to this abuse. They pointed this out to us before it started in case we might have missed the extremely heavy-handed symbolism.) I imagine the Chinese government gnashing its collective teeth over this show, which, well, really worked the political angle, generally speaking in a club like way.

Fa Lun Gung also seemed not so great, based on the dance piece in which the punk and the goth had goddesses and monks shaming them for their bad clothes (but then rewarding them with a religious text in a scene that had me thinking of Joseph Smith and the golden tablets) – is conformity really such a virtue for them? I think, though, rather than them disliking them for being “punk,” it may be, in fact, that they were being rejected for being homosexual – and for me, a religion (or culture or country) that persecutes homosexuals is not one that I could ever support.

While the religious element in general had me wishing for a much earlier end to the show, I also take issue with it being too long overall, using video screens in an imagination-inhibiting way, and … well, the singers just shouldn’t have been there at all, because they were boring and they ruined the flow of the rest of the show. And how could they do a show about Chinese arts and culture that didn’t have even a nod to the Journey to the West? So while at the end we were exhorted to bring our friends and family, I will say to you instead: avoid, avoid, avoid this show, even if you really like Chinese culture (like I do) – it’s like watching a two and a half hour long religious infomercial.

Valentine’s day is … for getting yourself something and telling your partner it’s a gift from them to you

February 15, 2008

So I was at the fancy whiskey shop on the Golden Mile Wednesday afternoon, shopping. My options were a 20 quid bottle of five year old hootch and, er, a more expensive bottle of the same thing, but from 1985. I just couldn’t stomach being so cheap as to get the bottle of new stuff – “Happy Valentines day! Hope this isn’t nearly as disappointing as I expect it’s going to be” – so I bought the other one. The man behind the counter was, well, I have to admit, seemingly SHOCKED that I’d gone for the other bottle, but he and his companion were just wreathed in smiles when I told them it was a Valentine’s gift from my husband. “Don’t worry, ” I said, “I’ll be buying some ballet tickets next and telling him they’re his gift to me.”

Anyway, as it works out, fifty pound tickets to Chroma weren’t quite in the range I was looking for, but Thursday did end with hot little tickets to The Homecoming at the Almeida and Dealer’s Choice (highly recommended by the the West End Whingers) in my hands – ostensibly as Valentine’s gifts, bought by me. (No luck with the tickets to Hairspray – which I must see before Michael Ball quits the cast.) I’m not sure what’s up with The Homecoming, but for the entire run a single pair of seats was NOT to be found. However, I have the magic touch and called just after someone had surrendered a pair, so we’re off to see it next week. Dealer’s Choice, well, that’s much easier to get into. What’s killing me is the tickets for Chroma. I saw four seats together show up at one point on the Royal Opera House website yesterday, but – 55 quid each! It really was the best thing I saw all of last year, but I’m just going to have to keep hoping that something shows up in the amphitheather – something with an unobstructed view, thank you very much, as I will see you in hell before I sit in the side slips again.

Carl Rosa Opera “The Mikado” at the Gielgud Theater

February 11, 2008

For three months or more I’ve been looking foward to seeing The Mikado at English National Opera. And then, a week or so before it was to play, I suddenly heard …. an entirely different company was doing the same production, at the same time, in a smaller house, with the costumes from Topsy Turvy.

Well. Carl Rosa Opera Company, you say? I’d never heard of them, but I dropped ENO faster than you can say “”Three little maids from school are we” (more lyrics and a humorous quiz here) and bought high altitude seats at the Gielgud (where recently we’d seen Macbeth – a more different show could hardly be imagined!). Fortunately the orbital section was lightly populated and we were able to make our way from the very very edge into the center, though still some 500 rows up (and yet still better than the shit seats at Spamalot!). This was enough for a fine view of what were ultimately to be very silly proceedings.

What, really, am I to say about The Mikado in general? I had never seen it before, and thus it was on my list of Shows I Want To See, especially after performing in Patience a few years back in Seattle. It’s just … it’s very silly. “Oh, a missive from the Mikado!” says a character. “But it’s all in Japanese!” (Pause.) “But I am Japanese, and we are in Japan! This means I can read it.” It wasn’t about being authentically Japanese, it wasn’t even pretending – which is good, because the sets were mostly Chinese and the women’s costumes had so many things wrong with them that I would have been really bothered if I’d have thought they were trying to get it “right.” With characters named Peep-Bo and Yum Yum, who were they kidding?

But you know, what’s right for Gilbert and Sullivan? Was it amusing, could you understand the lyrics (which are funny), was it tuneful, did you enjoy watching it? Really, it’s a taste you either have or you don’t, and I kind of have to start from the point that this is the kind of thing you’ll enjoy, with its multiple layers of corn and utter lack of depth, as I do. It’s in some ways a recreation of Victorian society, and, since I find it interesting and amusing, I enjoyed it. The costumes were top quality, the choreography entertained my eye, the updated lyrics (to two songs) were a hoot (“I’ve got a little list” with all of the modern pecadillos and politicos was great), the women’s voices (especially the trios) shimmered. My only complaints were that the men were not tight enough with their patter (and if the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society could drill us into the ground, these guys could do as least as well as we did) and the entire performance seemed a bit … well, passionless. Like Lear and the infamous Mary Poppins, this show just smacked of “we could do this in our sleep and some of us may at this very moment be in another room.” They didn’t have the commitment of the Annie Get Your Gun folks, who were singing their damn hearts out to a capacity crowd of about 50. But still, it was professional, at at 15 quid a ticket, we really could not complain. If you like G&S or have an interest in this play or this era of theatrical history, I do recommend this show. That said … I think I’ve had my fill for another six months or so, and will be taking a pass on Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance. But in the future I know I’ll see more G&S, and, truth be told, I fancy I’ll want to see another Mikado, but only if done as well as this one was.

(This review is of a performance seen Friday, February 8th, 2008.)

Chita Rivera at the Shaw Theater (London) – Ars Longa, Chita Brevis

February 10, 2008

Well, going to see Chita Rivera with the West End Whingers last night was really quite fun. I had a nice buzz going from all of the wine I had before the show and, as she talked about the passage of the years, I could practically feel them blowing by me. Unfortunately I don’t really have a grasp on the early part of her career (as I didn’t make it through West Side Story – the copy we rented was so horrible we gave up after about half an hour) so I didn’t really get the buzz from hearing her talk about and sing the songs of those, er, decades (hard to believe that someone like her would do a touring Sweet Charity back in the day – did they actually once have quality actors do tours instead of hacks?).

But she sang SO many songs from shows I’d never heard of (The Rink? Phil called it the one with the rollerskating dogs, but it was just a dog with rollerskates from the description she gave) that I felt like she represented the tip of a huge iceberg of music I’d only ever experienced a fraction of. So much more wonderful music out there for me to learn! And watching her dance, I though, how strange it was to see this – she represented a physical memory that just couldn’t be recreated other than in her body. So much of the stuff she’s done and been in is just gone, and yet, as she started singing, “Big Spender,” I felt she could hear the words and the movement as a whole within her – a piano ker-slap (thump PIVOT), “I could tell …” (thrust ripple) “at the time …” – and so MANY of these things were buried in her, she was a veritable altar of musical theater and should be being carefully mined for all of her knowledge n an expedited basis.

Oh, but to see her sing, “Nowadays …” just an echo of the old days with Gwen Verdon, but so lovely … all of those years rising up in front of us, and all is heaven and I had to fight not to sing along. Aaaah. And then there was more wine and catty comments exchanged between old friends and talking about the rise and fall of musical theater (in England and the US) and how the dogs got rollerskates. Truly a great night out! (And hopefully soon I’ll review Friday’s outing to the Carlo Rossa Company’s Mikado, but with a six day work week, I’m a bit short on free time.)

(This review is for a show that took place Saturday, February 9th, 2008.)

Annie Get Your Gun – Union Theatre, Southwark

February 8, 2008

Last night, and I trucked off to the deep wilds South o’ the River to see Annie Get Your Gun. The Union Theatre is an adorable and tiny space built under some spare railway arch, which meant several songs received unexpected dramatic emphasis from the rumbling of the “building” as steel behemoths lumbered overhead. The show itself was the kind of show I thought was often done really well in Seattle – a small, highly talented cast jammed into a tiny space, with live music (piano, guitar, violin, and occasional addition percussion from the actors) and even lots of fun dance numbers. They made imaginitive use of a small budget in regards to costuming and sets, and I bought the whole thing. They were on a train! They were at a fancy party! They were travelling on a boat full of cows! It was great, though it might have been hard to kill those Irving Berlin showstoppers – one brilliant song after another. (Note to self: get soundtrack, practice “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.”) I also related to the lead character rather a lot – sassy and independent, but prone to pissing people off because she doesn’t follow “tradition.” Go, Annie Oakley!

Aforehand (to borrow the vernacular of the show, pure Hollywood “corn pone”), we had dinner at Bangalore Express, a new joint that opened across the street from Waterloo in the space formerly occupied by Thai Silk (103 Waterloo Road, website appears to be not built yet). It’s got all of the shoulder to shoulder shared tables I hate, but also an adorable “bunk bed” dining section where you have to walk up a ladder to get to the tables. (I’m not sure how they serve people up there, but when J’s foot heals, we’ll find out.) Their menu was $3 for sides, $4 for small mains, and $8 for large mains (okay it’s supposed to be pound signs but I don’t have that on this computer). We got a “regular” duck and potato dosa for $4 and a “large” combo plate (spicy coconut curry tandoori chicken on rice with a small side of sweet potato salad) for $8, and walked out of the door _with leftovers_ for $12. (We also didn’t buy drinks as we were feeling cheap.)

Er, in theater news, Summer Strallen of Drowsy Chaperone is now going to be Maria in the West End Sound of Music. I don’t really want to see that show, but I adore her so maybe I will. Also, three of the guys up for the local theatrical awards (Oliviers) are ones I saw in the roles they are nominated for this year – in Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello – pretty cool! I think I vote Patrick Stewart as the best of the lot.

This review is for a performance on February 7th.

David Mamet’s Speed the Plow at the Old Vic

February 5, 2008

Tonight we joined the West End Whingers and krewe at the Old Vic and saw David Mamet’s Speed the Plow, which is apparently still in previews. We had seats that were amazingly close to the stage – only four rows back! – but this was a bit irritating as the first several rows slope DOWN from the stage instead of up.

Given that I still haven’t reviewed Othello at the Donmar (but what’s the point, really, it’s sold out for months), I probably shouldn’t be writing this show up, but I don’t want to just let it slip.

In short:
1. I thought I saw Lyle Lovett in the bar.
2. I thought I saw the guy who was in The Big Chill on the stage, and apparently I was right. He is much sexier as a grownup than he was when he was young. It seems like he was in some other movies, too, but I liked him better on stage than in any of them. I am very bad with celebrities and it would be sad if I cared – I mean, I should really pay attention to who’s in the plays I’m going to see, but it’s really hard to give a rip about some Hollywood actor – but what matters is that he was fun to watch on stage and gave a mostly decent performance. (I disliked that he sounded so much like the other character, but I think that might be the fault of the author and not the performer.)
3. Mamet can’t write female characters.
4. There was no plow.
5. I got dizzy sitting so close to the stage and having a giant head blocking my view of the middle of it for most of the first scene – somehow combined with the unrelenting, rapid-fire dialogue I felt like I was getting motion sickness. The wine I had beforehand might have played a part in it but I blame the Old Vic and Mamet instead.
6. I know Laura Michelle Kelly was supposed to be reading out of a really crappy book in the second scene, but instead it seemed like she was reading a script with a really crappy extended monologue and just not getting how to say it. Perhaps she will improve as time goes on and the cast settles in a bit more.
7. There was some really funny one-liners in there, but I can’t remember any of them now as they were blocked by the monotony of the tone of the first scene and the wretchedness of the book in the second.
8. I really want to see Dirty Little Showtunes and Nick Garrison again, apropos of nothing.
9. On the way back, we met some people who said of the show, “Outstanding acting! Great writing! A total standing ovation!” J thought they must not get out much, and I thought they must have been either Kevin Spacey or Jeff Goldblum fans, or both. At any rate, NOT a total standing O at all, but it may get a little better over time. It wasn’t a bad night out on the whole.
10. It’s sad to be as excited as I was when I discovered that there was to be no intermission and the whole thing was going to be over at 9 PM, but that’s the joy of the unshakeable cold (and the husband with a broken foot) for you.